After months of political uncertainty Ukrainians finally get their say on their country’s future tomorrow in a crucial vote that, it is hoped, will dampen the current crisis.
In restive Donetsk – the scene of clashes in recent months between Ukrainian loyalists and pro-Russian secessionists – there are a few posters and electoral campaigning has been kept to a minimum. Ukrainian television and radio stations are no longer able to transmit here, so many of the population are relying on Russian stations for their news.
International monitors will be overseeing the vote in much of the west of Ukraine, but few are headed to the eastern regions, where monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have previously been detained by separatists.
Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire confectionary magnate, is expected to win a landslide victory for the presidency. Trailing some way behind him in the opinion polls is the former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
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Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
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Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
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Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
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A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
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A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
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A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
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A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
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Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
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Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
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A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
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Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
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A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
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A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
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A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
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A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
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Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
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A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
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A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
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A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
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Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
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An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
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Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
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Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
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Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
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A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
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A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
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Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
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Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
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Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
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Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
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An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
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A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
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A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
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People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
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Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
Many of those who favour elections taking place expressed cynicism about the candidates. “He’s the same as the other oligarchs,” said Alexander, 37, a lawyer working in central Donetsk, when asked his views on Mr Poroshenko. “I don’t see any political forces who have managed to change something in this country.”
Some appeared to view the election not so much a chance to vote for a favoured candidate as an opportunity to exercise their democratic rights.
“Of course there must elections. It is very important for us to vote and elect a legitimate president because the Acting President [Oleksandr Turchynov] is illegitimate,” said Natalya Churinova, a shopkeeper. But she was sceptical about the current leadership in Kiev. “The Ukrainian government doesn’t want to find a compromise. They didn’t want to start dealing with local people here.”
Many in this eastern region say they regard the events of the anti-government Euromaidan protests with suspicion. The overthrown President Viktor Yanukovych was born and raised in Donetsk province and later served as its governor and commanded much of his support in the east of the country. “People here thought he was a crook,” explained one voter in Donetsk, “but at least he was their crook.”
Others here said they felt the current situation was too combustible for an election to take place. “They are useless and they will be illegitimate. It’s civil war now, it’s the wrong time for elections,” said Natalia, waiting for a tram with her two young sons.
There were further clashes in the east of Ukraine today. Three bodies were seen in Karlivka, 12 miles from Donetsk, which is controlled by pro-Russian rebels. A rebel leader later claimed a further 16 had died in fighting – 10 soldiers, four rebels and two civilians – the Associated Press reported. In Kiev, the Defense Ministry said 20 insurgents were killed in an attack on a convoy on Thursday.
The build-up to tomorrow’s election has been blighted by murders, assaults, kidnappings, detentions, imprisonments, and threats against the media, the OSCE said.
On Friday, Russia indicated that it would recognise the results of the vote. “We understand that the people of Ukraine want their country to emerge from this crisis. We will treat their choice with respect,” Vladimir Putin said during the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.
However, Denis Pushilin, head of the separatists’ self-declared Supreme Council, has dismissed the presidential elections as invalid. His increasingly hostile supporters who have taken over Donetsk’s main government building echoed his views.
“How can we vote in elections in another country?” said one man, who gave his name as Anatoly. “According to all international laws we don’t have the right to vote for a Ukrainian president. There will be elections later. We will elect here our president.”
As he spoke, a car with its number plates removed pulled up and a gaggle of thickset tattooed men in tracksuits went into the building. “Show me the people who want to vote, who want to participate in such an election,” Anatoly continued, as a group of elderly pro-Russian women thronged around him. “They should go to their territory, far from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Better they go to Kiev and register there.”
The elections were called after President Yanukovych was deposed in February, following widescale protests against his pro-Russian policies, and are scheduled to go ahead despite serious disruptions to the voting preparations in eastern Ukraine.
Thirty-six million people are eligible to vote, but around a fifth of them live in the areas badly affected by the pro-Russian unrest. There will be no elections in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March.
Ukrainian elections: The frontrunners
Instantly recognisable for her blonde braid, pro-European Yulia Tymoshenko co-led the 2004 Orange Revolution. She was the country’s first female prime minister but lost elections to Victor Yanukovych in 2010. Jailed for corruption in 2011, she was released after the uprising in February 2014. Many voters now see her as a figure from the past.
The former National Bank chairman and deputy prime minister served as a parliamentary member of Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. After Yanukovych fled he revived an old party, Strong Ukraine. He is popular in eastern Ukraine but not in Kiev or the west; disruption to voting in the east means he is unlikely to do well.
A billionaire chocolate magnate who was Victor Yanukovych’s economy minister, Poroshenko was also the only oligarch on the barricades at the Euromaidan protests. He owns a confectionary company and, crucially, a television station. Despite being in Ukrainian politics since the 1990s, he retains a comparatively clean reputation.